Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have developed an electronic switch based on DNA, providing the foundation for an interface between living organisms and silicon-based computers.
The switch called a nanoactuator, or molecular dynamo was developed by molecular biotechnology expert Keith Firman in collaboration with other European researchers.
Firman has been awarded a €2 million European Commission grant under its New and Emerging Science and Technology initiative to further develop the nanoactuator for computing applications, but the DNA switch has immediate practical application in toxin detection, and be used as a biological sensor to detect airborne pathogens in biodefence applications.
Other potential applications include mechanical devices for interfacing to computer-controlled artificial limbs.
“The possibilities are very exciting. The nanoactuator can be used as a communicator between the biological and silicon worlds,” Firman said. “I can see it providing an interface between muscle and external devices, but it has to be pointed out that such an application is still 20 or 30 years away.”
The nanoactuator comprises a strand of DNA anchored in a channel of a microchip, a magnetic bead, and a biological motor powered by the naturally occurring energy source adenosine triphosphate.
These elements working together create a dynamo effect which in turn generates electricity. The result is a device that emits electrical signals that can be sent to a computer.
The nanoactuator has been patented by the University of Portsmouth, and a patent application for the basic concept of biosensing is pending.